“If you wanna get an authentic American experience, that living museum, just walk around the streets of New Orleans, talk to people. It’s there.”
Irvin Mayfield, Director, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra;
Cultural Ambassador for New Orleans and the state of Louisiana

(April 2010)—In “GREAT MUSEUMS: NEW ORLEANS: A LIVING MUSEUM OF MUSIC,” the award-winning series heads to the birthplace of American Jazz to experience the city as a “living museum” dedicated to preserving, protecting and exhibiting the traditional music of New Orleans – namely jazz. Narrated by New Orleans native and actor Wendell Pierce, with a musical underscore by Grammy® award-winning jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, this one-hour HD special premieres on public television stations nationwide in May 2010. Click here to watch preview and view photos from the film.

“GREAT MUSEUMS: NEW ORLEANS: A LIVING MUSEUM OF MUSIC” is an intimate look at the traditions associated with New Orleans’ music and the preservation of those traditions through the work of local musicians and educators who mentor young talent; museum curators who care for musical treasures; historians and archivists who research and document the stories; activists working to protect, heal and inspire the many musicians whose livelihoods were taken away by Katrina. All are committed to the preservation of the rich musical heritage of New Orleans, as well as the future of New Orleans music. “The living museum is a manifestation of participation,” proclaims Ellis Marsalis—revered jazz pianist, music educator, and patriarch of the Marsalis family jazz dynasty—who is featured in the program.

In “GREAT MUSEUMS: NEW ORLEANS: A LIVING MUSEUM OF MUSIC,” the story begins at a dance festival sponsored by Tulane University in historic Congo Square, located just outside the French Quarter in Louis Armstrong Park. In the 19th century, Congo Square was the only place in the antebellum south where African slaves were allowed to gather to drum, dance and practice their culture, an activity that was outlawed and eventually suppressed most everywhere else. As a result, only in New Orleans could the heavily syncopated rhythms of African music have been married to the traditional European brass band sound to create the unique American cultural phenomenon that we know today as “jazz.”

Apparently, the United States Congress agrees. In 1994, in recognition of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz and thus the birthplace of American music, Congress established the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park – an “intangible” national park, with no physical location, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of “jazz” as a unique American cultural treasure. “It’s difficult to explain to people that you’re not going to some big large expanse of land,” says Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, musician and National Park Ranger, “but you’re in New Orleans and this is a birthplace of jazz and jazz is alive. It’s not a cannonball.”

Music can be heard in New Orleans any day, nearly any time, in the clubs, on the streets, or at a festival. But there are plenty of tangible vestiges of the history of jazz as well. For instance, the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans has the world’s largest collection of significant jazz instruments; including the cornet that Louis Armstrong learned to play on as a child at the Municipal Boys Home, and Fats Domino’s personal practice piano, rescued from his flooded home after Katrina. “Practically speaking, all museums are living places,” says writer/producer Chesney Doyle, creator of the Great Museums’ series. “ Our museums are where we preserve and remember our experience as humans, but they also function as part of a larger community, part of a larger, ongoing story.”

In “GREAT MUSEUMS: NEW ORLEANS: A LIVING MUSEUM OF MUSIC,” that story includes parades, marching bands, festivals, clubs, churches, universities and high schools, weekend, after-school and summer programs for children, museums, archives, the musicians’ health clinic, jazz history walking tours and more. The film features inspirational music programs in which older, accomplished New Orleans musicians serve as mentors to New Orleans’ youth, from grade school age to teenagers. Some programs are designed to get kids off the streets (for example, drummer Derrick Tabb’s “Roots of Music” program, hosted at the Cabildo Museum on Jackson Square – also the site of the Louisiana Purchase); others are designed to teach musically talented teenagers to be music professionals (The Tipitina’s Foundation’s Weekend Music Program). All programs help the younger generations understand that “they are standing on the shoulders of giants” —Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Lorenzo Tio, to name a few.

Clarinetist Dr. Michael White, a professor of African music at Xavier University, whose musical lineage dates back to the earliest days of New Orleans jazz, explains the pride that New Orleans musicians feel when it comes to their music: “It’s really a great and tremendous thing that you can do what your ancestors did and at the same time be challenged to be creative and leave it for the next generation.”

“The end result is a picture of pride,” says Marc Doyle, co-executive producer of the Great Museums television series. “These attitudes and activities are the reasons that, despite the tragedy of Katrina and its devastating effect on the social fabric of the city, the tradition of jazz has existed in New Orleans in an unbroken chain from its origins in the 19th century through today.”

Working with the New Orleans’ Mayor’s Office, the National Park Service, festival organizers, local scholars and archives, various “save the music” organizations, and numerous leaders in the local music community, GREAT MUSEUMS® filmed in New Orleans for over two years to bring viewers a wide range of interviews with some of New Orleans’ preeminent contemporary musicians and others who are involved in keeping the tradition of New Orleans music alive. Interviewees include the revered pianist and music educator Ellis Marsalis, father of four internationally renowned jazz musicians (Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason); the oldest living jazzman, Lionel Ferbos; and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. The history and ongoing relevance of New Orleans jazz is brought to life by those whose lives are dedicated to preserving the city’s legendary music traditions, including Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University; Dr. Michael White, an award winning jazz clarinetist and professor of African American music at Xavier University; Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, a musician and park ranger at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Dr. Alfred Lemmon, musicologist and director of the Williams Research Center at the Historic New Orleans Collection, speaks to the connection between Jazz and European classical music.

Wendell Pierce is recognized by film audiences for his extensive work for directors including Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson, Sidney Lumet and Paul Schrader. Hailed for his portrayal of Det. Bunk Moreland on five critically acclaimed seasons of ”The Wire,” his next series “Treme” reunites him with the same creative team: HBO, David Simon, and Eric Overmyer. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans it chronicles the rebuilding of the city through the eyes of local musicians. “Treme” airs in April 2010. Wendell is a native of New Orleans and has worked to rebuild the neighborhood in which he was raised. He formed Ponchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, a non-profit corporation, to rebuild 350 affordable and environmentally friendly homes, which will preserve the community character and help longtime residents come back to their neighborhood.

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